Robert Spalding is a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. rebalance — or “pivot” — to the Asia-Pacific must be peaceful and affordable. Unfortunately, our country neglects the one aspect of national defense that can deliver this outcome: nuclear weapons.
As I entered active duty as a bomber pilot at the end of the Cold War, I was among those who questioned the continued relevance of nuclear weapons. The Cold War was over and, thankfully, we had escaped nuclear armageddon. I believed it was time to put away the bomb and focus on more relevant conventional capabilities. Lately, however, I have become keenly aware of the need for our nuclear force.
The United States won the Cold War by maintaining a credible nuclear force to stand in opposition to the Soviet Union. U.S. nuclear weapons defended Europe against a numerically superior conventional force. Missile-equipped submarines and the bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles of Strategic Air Command were the nuclear triad that deterred the Soviets from attacking. These forces were at the forefront of our defense strategy and received priority in both rhetoric and funding.
The U.S. nuclear force exists to keep a threshold on the level of violence. This is especially important when disagreements between nuclear powers move beyond dialogue. While numerous smaller wars existed in proxy states during the Cold War, direct conflict between nuclear powers always deescalated back to dialogue. It is possible that the international body politic that arose after World War II is the reason we have not witnessed a third world war. Yet it is also possible that has not occurred because the threat of nuclear holocaust is too menacing. More likely, it is a combination of the two.
To be credible, nuclear weapons must be a key component underpinning relevant U.S. foreign policy. It erodes morale and encourages perpetually low funding when the Nuclear Posture Review adds “as long as nuclear weapons exist” to the phrase “safe, secure and effective,” as if it is a foregone conclusion that these weapons will be eliminated. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, France, Britain and North Korea all treat nuclear weapons as a key component in their nation’s strategy, and they are modernizing weapons and/or delivery systems.
Nuclear weapons are instruments of peace. Airmen and sailors nobly ensure that nuclear conflict will be deterred by being ready to use them. Americans may feel guilty for possessing such terrible capacity to destroy life. Despite their distastefulness, however, nuclear weapons probably have saved lives. A new day dawned on Aug. 6, 1945. Many who worked on the Manhattan Project believed that they had condemned the world. They could not have known that they might have liberated it. Since Aug. 9, 1945, approximately 7 million to 10 million people have died from conflict. Before the introduction of nuclear weapons, two world wars alone led to the deaths of 70 million to 100 million — a difference of a decimal point.
Nuclear weapons are an affordable deterrent. The cost of the triad represents less than 3 percent of the $526 billion Defense Department budget. In 2012, the U.S. Postal Service lost about $16 billion, or three times the amount it cost U.S. taxpayers for intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers, two-thirds of the triad. Although the nuclear budget needs to rise to offset the more than 20 years of neglect in modernization, a modest increase would barely register in the overall defense budget.
A perceived march toward complete nuclear disarmament, evident in phrases like “as long as nuclear weapons exist,” weakens the very thing that ensures a peaceful future. The idea that such weapons are here only until we can figure out how to get rid of them gnaws at the morale of every airman and sailor tasked with this awesome responsibility. As conventional forces modernize, nuclear weapons funding dwindles, and weapons systems age. The irony is distressing: We are funding weapons that kill on a daily basis to the detriment of the weapons that exist to prevent war.
The sensible path to peace starts with the realization that peace can be secured only through strength. Nuclear weapons represent that strength. We must embrace it through funding and rhetoric. The troops tasked with ensuring our peaceful future must hear that they are important, and they must see and feel it as well. We need new weapons and delivery systems, but, most important, we need a new strategy that recognizes the importance of nuclear weapons to a peaceful future.